NASA selects three MIT alumni for astronaut training

NASA

Marcos Berríos ’06, Christina Birch PhD ’15, and Christopher Williams PhD ’12 make up a third of the 2021 NASA astronaut candidate class.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology has once again confirmed its status as a popular launch pad for future astronauts. NASA announced that three MIT alumni are among the 10-person astronaut candidates for 2021.

Marcos Berrios ’06, graduated from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering; Christina Birch, Ph.D. ’15, Ph.D. from the Department of Biological Engineering, and Christopher Williams, Ph.D. ’12, Ph.D. from the Department of Physics, were introduced as members of the newest class of astronauts, the first in four years by NASA. during an event outside NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

They are among 10 new US cosmonaut candidates drawn from more than 12,000 applicants. The three aim to increase the total number of MIT astronaut alumni to 44 out of 360 NASA selected by NASA to work as astronauts since the creation of Mercury Seven in 1959.

The astronaut candidates will report to service at the JSC in January to begin two years of training. The training of astronaut candidates falls into five main categories: operation and maintenance of the complex systems of the International Space Station, spacewalking training, development of complex robotics skills, the safe operation of a T-38 training jet, and Russian language.

Upon completion, missions may involve carrying out research aboard the International Space Station, launching from US soil on spacecraft built by commercial companies, and deep space missions to destinations including the moon on NASA’s Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket.

Christopher Williams

A native of Potomac, Maryland, Williams, 38, graduated from Stanford University in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in physics and from MIT in 2012 with a doctorate in physics with a major in astrophysics.

As a child, he remembers designing the space shuttle and watching shuttle launches on TV. “This kind of instilled in me both this passion for space exploration but also this interest in science,” he says.

Between Stanford and MIT, he took a gap year to work as a radio astronomer in a naval research laboratory in Washington and to research supernovae at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He also worked alongside as an EMT and a volunteer firefighter, skills he brought with him to MIT. “Being an EMT has helped me learn to stay calm and handle quite challenging and difficult situations, but also to give back to the community I am a part of.”

At MIT, he focused on astronomy and astrophysics at the MIT Kavli Institute of Astrophysics and Space Research. Together with their adviser Jackie Hewitt, they worked on building the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) to look at the very early universe to understand how the first stars and galaxies were formed and how it influenced the evolution of the universe.

And yet …”I had that astronaut dream still floating in my head, and interacting with some of the astronauts at MIT was a great way to add that flame,” he says. “The building where my office was located, I walked in every morning and saw a picture of Ron McNair on the wall which was quite inspiring to see, and knowing that he was also from MIT, I thought that.”

After MIT, he took a left turn, applying his physics knowledge to medicine

Williams is a certified medical physicist who completed his residency training at Harvard Medical School before joining the faculty as a clinical physicist and researcher. More recently, he worked as a medical physicist in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. He was the chief physicist of the Institute’s magnetic resonance-guided adaptive radiation therapy program, and his research has focused on developing image guidance techniques for cancer treatments.

Williams also met his future wife, Aubrey Samost-Williams ’10, SM ’15 at MIT, and now they have a 2-year-old daughter.
“It will be a unique and interesting experience that I hope I can contribute to the space program, because I hope to bring my background in astronomy and astrophysics, but also knowledge of radiation and medicine,” says Williams.

He still hopes to continue his graduate work at NASA. “The moon is actually a great place to put a low frequency radio wave around, because it can protect you from radio noise from Earth and this could allow us to probe part of the universe in a range of the electromagnetic spectrum that we never are. been able to do this before.”

NASA Artemis Generation is an initiative to bring the first woman (and the next man) to the moon by 2024. The first class to graduate under NASA’s Artemis program, in 2020, included three alumni of aeronautics and astronautics , Raja Chari SM ’01, Jasmin Moghbeli ’05 and Warren “Woody” Hoburg ’08. Former Whitehead Institute researcher Kate Rubins, who was selected as NASA astronaut in 2009 and had served as a flight engineer aboard the International Space Station, also joined the team.

Marcos Berríos

A native of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, 37-year-old Berríos is a United States Air Force major and test pilot with a BA in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and an MSc in Mechanical Engineering, as well as a PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University.

The outstanding pilot Berríos has accumulated over 110 combat missions and 1,300 flight hours in over 21 different aircraft. “As a test pilot, I truly believe in the human space exploration mission and would like to contribute to the development of new vehicles that will take us to the moon,” he says.

At the time of selection as NASA astronaut candidate, Berríos was Commander of 1,413th Air Test Squadron and deputy director of the CSAR Joint Task Force. While a reservist with the National Air Guard, Berríos served as an aviation engineer for the US Army’s Aviation Development Directorate at Moffett Federal Airport in California.

“I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut,” he says. “When I was five or six years old, I wanted to travel to nebulae and other galaxies. Ender’s Game was probably the book that certainly helped continue this inspiration for space exploration.”

An avid reader of the autobiographies of astronauts, he decided to emulate them by completing his doctorate and enlisting in the army.

Berrios says that MIT first began preparing him for the ordeal of an astronaut with “hours, hours, and hours of trying to solve every set of tasks we had to do in a week. I think the discipline itself has completely prepared me to deal with anything else that comes my way.

“I got into mechanical engineering because I wanted to build things,” he adds. “I wanted to use my hands. I took 2007, a class that I would Google when I was in high school – that class in itself motivated me to want to go to MIT. I think these practical skills are extremely important for astronauts. On a space station, we need to fix the toilet, we need to keep this vehicle in space, and therefore I think the practical skills, the problem-solving skills that I gained from studying at MIT, are extremely useful. ”

Christina Birch

Birch, 35, grew up in Gilbert, Arizona and received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from the University of Arizona. At MIT, she worked in the Niles Laboratory in the Department of Biological Engineering, gaining engineering and communication skills, and serving on the MIT cycling team.

After receiving her PhD in bioengineering from MIT, she taught bioengineering at the University of California at Riverside and academic writing and communication at Caltech. But she was withdrawn from cycling competitions and left academia to become an excellent track cyclist on the US national team, and was eventually destined for the Olympics. While she was there this summer to support her Olympic teammates in Japan, she has also scheduled her second interview with NASA.

As a professional track cyclist, your training regimen will come in handy. “My training will be very varied and will require a lot of different physical skills, so some of the things I’ve already started doing is finally working on my upper body, which we neglect as cyclists. So, I’m trying to work on shoulder strength and grip flexibility, preparing myself for spacewalk training in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab.

“Being an astronaut has always been something of a dream in the background, but I really don’t think it was until I was in the lab doing experiments in biology, bioengineering and chemistry. I saw what was happening on the space station and saw similar experiments being done there, and I said, “Hey, you know, this is a skillset that I have. Maybe I have other things that I can contribute.”

“I still feel like I’m sitting here in a flight suit,” she says. “I am thrilled to train on T-38s because half of my class are incredible pilots, so I can’t wait to fly with them.”

Will she be the first woman on the moon? “I don’t need to be the first, I just want to be part of this program,” she says.
She hopes to conduct several bioengineering experiments in microgravity, such as tissue engineering. “On Earth, under gravity, cells are limited by their own weight, and their size is limited, so they can usually only grow in two dimensions, while in space without Earth’s gravity, they expand more readily.”

Tech Business News Editorial Team

The TBN team is a well establish group of technology industry professionals with backgrounds in IT Systems, Business Communications and Journalism.

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